Eric Benet recently declared in an interview with BoomBox that “This is the one. This is the one that I’ve been working toward my entire career. I’m stronger vocally, creatively, and I’m at the top of my game now. This is the purest representation of Eric Benet.” I couldn’t agree more. While Benet has had his share of seminal soul classics including his preternaturally good solo debut album, True To Myself, his products have been a rollercoaster ride in strength and depth. At his best, Benet has been an R&B song and voice talent to be reckoned with, at his worst his material can meander into generic schmaltz and clichéd melodies. Still, Benet’s star has endured through media drama and label transitions to inexplicably overcome an industry in decline and to reach his creative apex.
Eric Benet recently declared in an interview with BoomBox that “This is the one. This is the one that I’ve been working toward my entire career. I’m stronger vocally, creatively, and I’m at the top of my game now. This is the purest representation of Eric Benet.” I couldn’t agree more. While Benet has had his share of seminal soul classics including his preternaturally good solo debut album, True To Myself, his products have been a rollercoaster ride in strength and depth. At his best, Benet has been an R&B song and voice talent to be reckoned with, at his worst his material can meander into generic schmaltz and clichéd melodies. Still, Benet’s star has endured through media drama and label transitions to inexplicably overcome an industry in decline and to reach his creative apex. This may be the best album Eric Benet has crafted since his benchmark introduction some 16 years ago as that young matinee idol tenor with the permanent five o’clock shadow.
It’s taken Eric Benet Jordan a Mississippi minute to reclaim his identity following his high-profile marriage and divorce from Academy Award-winning actress Halle Berry, including late night comedian digs about Benet’s reported “sex addiction” (Benet has since clarified with Ebony/Jet that he is not a sex addict). Long before he became tabloid fodder, Benet was set to take the mantle of R&B King as one of the most compelling soul singers of his generation. After separating from his sister, Lisa, and cousin, George Nash Jr., as a member of the band Benet and appearing on Michael Franks’ Dragonfly, the singer/songwriter/producer had a run of back-to-back hits that received both critical and commercial acclaim, including “Femininity,” “Let’s Stay Together,” “When You Think of Me” (feat. Roy Ayers), “Georgy Porgy” (feat. Faith Evans), and the million-selling crossover pop hit “Spend My Life with You” (feat. Tamia).
Then, Benet married Berry and suddenly he was framed in the media as someone benefiting from her shine, rather than it being a pairing of the movie beauty with an artist who’d worked hard to have a great deal of shine all his own. It didn’t help public perception that his 2001 Better and Better project was shelved by Warner Bros. and Benet didn’t release another full-length solo project for most of his marriage to Berry -- instead guest-starring on soundtracks like The Ride, other stars’ vehicles like Something for the People’s This Time It’s Personal and several smooth jazz projects. By the time the semi-confessional Hurricane came out in 2005, Benet’s marriage was over and it was high ridicule season of him in the tabloids. Benet salvaged his reputation when the title track, initially dismissed, became an inspiring song of hope for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, showing up on charity benefits and products supporting the survivors. Despite yielding a Top 30 R&B hit with “I Want to Be Loved,” Hurricane was the least successful of Benet’s catalog at the time. In the years since, Benet became methodical about reconstructing his career (now as an independent artist) and fully recovering his standing and his legion of fans with 2008’s Love & Life and 2010’s Lost In Time, delivering a string of Top 20 and 40 R&B hits, including: “Chocolate Legs,”“You’re The Only One,” and “Sometimes I Cry.”
Releasing a project every two years can be a gift and a curse. It keeps an artist in the public eye, but sometimes material can be rushed out too soon as with the lackluster, ‘70s inspired Lost In Time. With co-producers George Nash Jr., Andy Duncan, Wayne Jobson, and the incomparable Osunlade, Benet does not have that issue this go-round. With very few missteps, Benet’s The One is an inspired and comprehensive offering from start to finish. “Real Love,” the Top 40 R&B single released last year, trumpeted a return of pristine vocal form by Benet, whose skyscraping falsetto has grown to rival that of Earth Wind & Fire’s Phillip Bailey, Enchantment’s E.J. Johnson, or After 7’s Kevon Edmonds. Throughout The One, Eric Benet proves his voice is now a promise fulfilled. His thumping follow-up, “Harriett Jones,” has a mid-tempo groove that’s the perfect entry for summer but doesn’t come close to the blessing that is “News for You.” With its EWF doo wop opening and rising harmonic choruses, on “News for You” Benet delivers a steppers delight that doesn’t skip on a horn chart equal to any of the brass sections the ‘70s soul enthusiast admires. The rollicking “Redbone Girl” (feat. Lil Wayne) rolls with enough swinging horns and swelling organ rolls to make James Brown proud. Despite the controversy it has inspired, the song isn’t the offensive cut some colorists are making it out to be (the man did sing an ode to brown-skinned girls just two albums ago, ya’ll). With an unexpected break and minimalist conclusion, “Waitin” nicely completes the big band classic soul cuts. The album is full of bright, yet romantic sounds like these, bursting with live orchestrations that add energy and warmth to each track. These robust songs feel expensive and well-crafted, worthy of an artist of Benet’s stature but rarely heard as vets approach their 20 year mark in the industry.
Word is “Muzik” (feat. India Benet) may be the next single. A father-daughter duet can be a sticky affair; one wants to avoid both an ick factor or obvious G-rated pandering. Benet beats these concerns by kicking up the jam factor with a metaphorical tribute to his daughter and their struggles over the years that has just enough funk, infectious hooks, and exceptional vocal work from India Benet that one totally forgets this a song between a parent and child. The vamp out alone may make it the kind of single that burrows itself into the memory bank and keeps you humming its tune.
Ballads are spare here but elegant in their craftsmanship, maintaining a class even when the topics run salacious. Against trickling piano runs, brushed drums, and swirling brass, Osunlade maintains his winning record of production brilliance with “Come Together,” a quiet storm that seductively asks the kind of question Tank provocatively asked on his famed sexual healing cut, “When.” The standout, breathy ballad “Touching Again” takes brooding colors and signature chords heard on such Benet classics as "A Love of My Own” and "All in the Game," adding subtly driving lyrics and rhythms that will leave listeners breathless (sadly it is one only available on the International Deluxe Edition). For those deejays who still play slow jams for the dancefloor, Benet rounds out this trio of smoldering material with a traditional urban AC hip-to-hip sway with “Runnin’.”
The pop and country departures on “The One” illustrate Benet’s versatility, but some dip into his penchant for the cloying. A Nashville inspired duet with Jewel Anguay, with its pitch perfect acoustic guitar strums, surprises listeners like a field of daffodils on a golden lit day. The Broadway lullaby of “Here in My Arms (Lucia’s Lullaby)” is sonically a spare and tender moment by an awestruck father to his newborn daughter, but Ruzann Sargsyan’s borderline cliché classical string arrangement and Benet’s sentimental lyricism (co-penned with new wife Manuela Testolini) leave it just shy of the “Awww” reward it strives so hard to earn. “Gonna Be My Girl” and “Lay It Down” find Benet solidly tip-toeing into pure Top 40 radio pop; neither anthemic melody is indicative of the originality Benet is capable of, but each is serviceable and are likely to grow on you through repetition. Whatever they don’t deliver, a ‘90s throwback ballad to Glenn Lewis’s “Falling Again,” the sultry, Latin-tinged “That’s My Lady,” fully recovers, leaving listeners twirling in flamenco breaks and electric guitar solos that crown the jam Benet’s own. The peppy Shaggy duet “Hope That It’s You” is infectious, Caribbean fun.
Though part of what makes Eric Benet’s The One work are its familiar and sometimes obscure reference points throughout the project, Benet always brings a twist to these comfy proceedings, making something new each time: changing a chord here, adding a break there, incorporating an instrumental solo with backing harmonies. Never are you bored by these journeys to past musical sounds that have been so lovingly and careful updated for modern soul audiences. Both in its gifts and challenges, The One is the perfect portrait of Benet’s artistry. Its inviting lyrics of triumph, relationships, and love are also reflective of an artist, new husband and father who has learned some hard lessons about life and this business of music, only to finally find both his personal and creative lives right at home. Highly recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson
*This is a review of the Deluxe International Edition.